“Gifted”: That Word May Not Mean What You Think It Means

This TEDx Talk by Michelle Barmazel is excellent. Watch and share!

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Eight Steps to Ease Homeschool Math Anxiety and Increase Confidence

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Homeschool parents! You can help your kids conquer math anxiety. Here's how. | Pamela Price for RedWhiteandGrew.com

Math anxiety. I’ve had it most of my life. Even when we first talked about homeschooling, it was only the idea of math that made me feel queasy looking toward the future.

Curiously this inborn anxiety coexists with a decent academic math record. Twice in my K-12 years I was placed in special, accelerated math programs. Still, I never felt comfortable with the topic.

Yes, to this day the word “math” feels weird on my tongue.

It wasn’t until I was an adult—and a homeschool parent—that I came to understand that my math anxiety can be alleviated. With this extended essay, I’m giving you the tools you need to help ease math anxiety in your household.

In this post, I’ve presented my strategy in a stepwise, 1-2-3… fashion, but you can certainly riff on this formula as you see fit. Teachers and parents of kids in public school will find this information useful (see page 5).

Please note that in this post I assume that any signs of dyscalculia or other relevant learning disabilities are already diagnosed and being addressed.


Step 1. “Demath.”

This step is crucial, especially if you and your child have been locked in a battle of wills over math assignments. Demathing (my term) is like deschooling: everyone gets a chance to adjust attitudes and ideas about what learning can and should be.

Demathing is different than deschooling, however, in that you may continue along in other topics just as before. You’re temporarily tossing the formal math lessons.

The longer you’ve been battling your kid’s math anxiety, the longer the break you’ll need. During this time, consider strewing (a brilliant term from the unschooling community) videos and books in your child’s path that illustrate the wonders of math. Vi Hart’s videos are popular and fun (see below). Biographies about famous mathematicians and computer programmers are nifty. If your kids are open to it–and it doesn’t feel like “work” to them, invite them to check out Matific, a collection of “math mini-games” that is currently free to homeschoolers.

(Yes, Khan Academy is popular, but I honestly find most of the videos dull.)

Out-of-the-house math adventures are good, too. We lucked into attending an international math conference a few months back—complete with 3D printers and an original German enigma machine. The experience completely changed both of our perspectives on what mathematics is and can be. Vi Hart’s dad, George, was a speaker, and, as a trained art historian, I loved his talk about his sculptural “barn raisings.” Meanwhile, my kid got excited about trying a pair of fancy, virtual reality glasses in the exhibit hall.

If cutting out math cold turkey makes you anxious, keep a daily log of every time your kid does math. Divvying up a cookie into fourths to share with siblings counts. Or note whenever she watches a television show that features math. Odd Squad on PBS is wonderful for elementary aged kids {Amazon Affiliate Link}. You may be surprised at what math your kid already knows and uses daily.

In fact, some families may decide to switch to unschooling math either for the short term or permanently.

And that’s okay. Whatever works.


Step 2: Do your own homework—and some deep thinking about the nature of math anxiety.

While your kid sits out math assignments for a few days or weeks, you’ve got important online research to do. With the help of Google, read up on recent studies about math anxiety using MRIs, specifically the work of Sian Bielock. (Samples here, here, and here.)

Guess what you’ll find when you poke around? Math anxiety, like other forms of anxiety, is a “pain in the brain.” (Thanks a lot, amygdala.) You’ll also learn that anxiety short-circuits our ability to access working memory where math problems are solved.

Think about it like this: if you’re uneasy in a job setting and your boss is being critical of your work daily, then will your assignments be perfect and your attitude chipper? Or will you be skittish or angry and more prone to making mistakes? Making an error—and worse yet feeling ashamed about it and lacking the skills to manage those emotions effectively—creates more fear.

A vicious cycle develops.

You’ve likely seen the end result in your own kid. I sure felt it growing up. When I tried to address it with teachers, the solution was “do more problems.”

Nope. That doesn’t work.

If you’ve been at loggerheads with your chronically math anxious child, accept that fussing and feuding over assignments will get the two of you nowhere. Similarly, accusing him or her of being “lazy” or throwing your hands up in frustration because they “just won’t live up to their potential” is a waste of energy. (This is especially true if your child is twice-exceptional.)

Jettison that kind of talk and thinking from within yourself, and carry no residual guilt about it as we move forward. Apologize to your child if you think it will help repair your relationship. Talk to your spouse or partner about how what the two of you say about math and your child’s ability to do math affects his or her success. Forgive yourselves and one another. Spend your personal demath time reframing the math anxiety issue in your household as a surmountable obstacle. If you’re partnered and your spouse has been a factor in the pressure put on your math anxious kid, you’re going to want to educate him or her as you go along, too.

I encourage you now, in preparation for Step 4, to watch the following short video about meditation. As you watch, consider how the thoughts and fears you have about your child’s math anxiety may have accidentally made the situation more complicated. No blame or shame! Accept and let the past go. Consider, too, how our brains can run away with us and why we must retrain them. We’ll talk about “how” to do that in Step 4.

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